Dealers’ lots are packed with 2014 car models ripe for a deal—there’s sure to be something for every buyer and every budget. High-end carmakers are luring buyers with lower-priced models, and mainstream brands are loading their vehicles with features that used to be found only on luxury models. American cars are back in a big way, with General Motors and Chrysler introducing impressive new models in an attempt to play catch-up with Ford and the foreign competition. And nearly every carmaker is offering a menu of green powertrains, from hybrid to electric to diesel.
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Sales are at their highest levels in six years. That has prompted carmakers to overproduce again, opening the door to savings. “Manufacturers got caught up in the euphoria of people buying cars and reacted by building more,” says Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com. Automakers are fighting for market share, he says, so they’re “throwing pretty serious money on the hoods” in the form of incentives, especially low-rate financing. He predicts that it will be another year before they correct the imbalance.
Kiplinger’s Best Value Awards can help you narrow the field. We sorted the 2014 models by price and category and ranked them for performance, safety and value—including resale value and fuel economy. Kiplinger.com's Car Rankings tool reveals the top models in 13 categories including our picks for Best in Class and Best New models. We highlight five additional vehicles in each category as “worth a look”; they scored high enough to be in contention for the top awards.
More for Your Money
Cars in every price range are better than ever. The “trickle-down effect” means you’ll find midrange and lower-end cars with features that not long ago were the purview of luxury vehicles—from higher-quality materials to safer designs to infotainment extras.
The 2014 Mazda6 midsize sedan’s upscale feel and reasonable price sold Brian Byrne (the redesigned Mazda6 wins our Best New Car award in the $20,000-to-$25,000 category). He and his wife, Kodye, of Aliso Viejo, Cal., are Mazda loyalists; both previously owned Mazda3s, and Kodye now drives a CX-9 crossover. But after Brian was promoted to district sales manager for a stainless-steel distributor, he needed something classier to drive clients around in. “Inside and out, it looks more expensive than what I’m paying,” he says, noting that the navigation display reminds him of the one in BMW models. Brian pays $275 a month to lease the Mazda6, and he plans to purchase the car when the lease is up.
Quality gaps between brands are narrowing—and that includes differences once common between foreign and domestic makes. “I don’t see a lot of difference in build quality between a Malibu and a Mercedes,” notes Visnic. J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study rates GMC and Chevrolet in second and fifth place, respectively (Porsche tops the list, and Lexus and Infiniti round out the top five brands). All of GM’s brands score above the industry average.
Lou Palumbo has been a devoted buyer of Chevrolet Suburbans for his private security business, but he struggled to find an American sedan that he felt was worth the money. That changed when the New Yorker test-drove the redesigned Chevrolet Impala. “It’s comparable to most high-end foreign cars,” he says. “Fit, finish and amenities—it’s the whole package.”
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Infotainment technology continues to filter down from pricey models to mainstream cars. New systems make greater use of your smart phone’s capabilities and enable you to do more without taking your hands off the wheel. In-car apps can connect you to Pandora Internet radio, read text messages aloud, and even give you audio Facebook and Twitter updates.
It’s not all good news, though. As more technology enters the car, concerns about distracted driving increase. And although mechanical quality has improved, J.D. Power’s Dave Sargent notes that consumer complaints about tech systems have gone up. “Consumers aren’t complaining about the engine or the brakes failing—it’s that the navigation freezes or the voice recognition isn’t working,” he says. Most of the problems stem from systems that are not intuitive enough for the average consumer. But it’s not entirely the manufacturers’ fault, he says. “Consumers are legendary for not reading owners’ manuals.”
You can now find advanced safety technology in all but the cheapest rides (see How to Buy a Safe Car). Rearview cameras are available on 70% of vehicles this year—and are often standard equipment. (Former NHTSA administrator David Strickland told Kiplinger’s that the agency would add rearview cameras to its list of recommended technologies but would not require the equipment anytime soon.) And active safety features—such as lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and forward-collision warning, which uses sensors to help you keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you—are spreading quickly as well. These features are options on mainstream compact cars such as the redesigned Mazda3 and Mini Cooper Hardtop and on midsize sedans such as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Subaru Legacy.
The bar continues to rise for crash testing. For the 2014 model year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety revamped the criteria it uses for its Top Safety Pick designation. The institute now requires vehicles to earn “good” or “acceptable” ratings on all of its tests in order to earn the coveted award. That includes the small overlap test, which simulates a crash in which only one-fourth of the car’s front end strikes a barrier. A model that not only has top crash-test results but also is equipped with forward-collision warning is named a Top Safety Pick+. The IIHS’s increasingly strict criteria mean that just 39 vehicles received either award—a stark contrast to the 130 vehicles that won them last year.
MPG Marches On
The government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require carmakers to increase fuel economy about 4% each year from 2012 to 2016, eventually bringing the average for all vehicles sold in the U.S. to 35.5 miles per gallon. To reach that goal, automakers have introduced more hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure-electric vehicles, as well as diesel options. The internal-combustion engine continues to evolve, employing fuel-saving technology such as turbocharging and direct injection.
Manufacturers have quietly added more hybrids to their lineups, and they’re getting better with each iteration. Honda’s second attempt at a hybrid Accord is a success, says John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports. “It’s a big midsize sedan that’s powerful and quiet. You can get up to 48 mpg in real-world driving, edging into Prius territory.”
Plug-in hybrid sales have been disappointing because the vehicles are too expensive for most buyers, and sales of pure-electric vehicles are still a sliver of the market. Plug-in hybrid owners are still paying up at the gas pump unless they take a lot of short trips and charge the battery after each one. For the majority of consumers, the price premium over a traditional hybrid doesn’t make sense.